Boxes and Tray in the Done Pile


Sliding lid pencil box with kolrosing paprika filled decoration.


Sliding lid pencil box with kolrosing coffee filled decoration.

Two more coats of clear shellac, buffed with steel wool and a coat of paste wax finishes out these few simple projects.  I think that I derive as mush satisfaction from making these simple, utilitarian projects as I do from creating anything else.  It’s the process of working with my hands that draws me to this type of work.  Plus, I’m practical in my nature and these everyday use type projects tick that box for me.  What could be more satisfying than taking a few bits of wood and some simple tools and creating something useful and, if I may be so bold, beautiful?


A simple table top tray.

Box making is also a fantastic way to practice your woodworking skills.  Making boxes is just small-scale drawer and case work.  If you can make a box you can transfer those same skills to the larger projects.  They are also a chance to practice your finishing skills.  This is something I need to practice every chance that I can get.


Chisel box with sliding lid removed.


Chisel box with lid in place.

The finish on these projects is simple.  A few coats of clear shellac, applied with a hake brush.  Once the shellac is dry I rub it out with 0000 steel wool.  This creates an absolutely smooth surface.  When I rub out shellac I use sound, touch and sight to judge the surface.  The freshly coated shellac surface has a somewhat rough surface.  When I begin rubbing it out with the steel wool there is a grating sound.  As the surface begins to smooth, the sound changes to a sort of swoosh sound as the steel wool glides across the surface.  A quick feel with my fingers will reveal any areas that have been missed or need a little more attention.  Finally a visual inspection to verify that the entire surface has been addressed.  When I rub out shellac I try to remove all of the gloss from the surface.  Doing so usually results in a uniform and smooth surface.  Then a coat or two of a quality paste wax will bring up a luster.  This shellac and wax method is by far my favorite way of finishing a project.  The results are consistent and repeatable for me.

Greg Merritt

Posted in Finishing, Woodworking | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Two Coats of Bug Secretions

box-4I been piecing on the boxes and trays after work this week.  An hour, at the most, every evening before having to call it quits.  Nothing ground breaking, just finish planing and a little sanding.  I also added some decoration to the lids of each box.  Today I managed to apply two coats of clear shellac.  They’ll need another couple of coats before I buff them with steel wool, apply a paste wax and move them to the done pile.

box-5The decoration I approached with no plan whatsoever.  There is something sort of liberating about going this route.  Each design just sort of takes its own form as I cut each line.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the technique, here are the cliff notes.  What I have done with these is a simple form of kolrosing.  A Scandinavian form of decoration.  You just incise a line, or lines, into the surface of the wood and then rub in something to fill the incision.  box-6Historically this was done with coal dust, hence the name.  Since I don’t have any coal laying around, I use instant coffee.  Just sprinkle the coffee on the wood and rub it in with your finger.  Wipe off the excess and lightly sand to remove the raised areas of the incision.  Simple.  The design that shows as red in my photos was done with paprika.  It gives a more subtle appearance than the coffee and I like it on the pine.  There are several “fancy” knives that can be had for this technique.  I’m a simple SOB and just use a utility knife.  I did try an experiment by mounting an exacto knife in my large compass to incise a circle on the chisel box lid.  As you can see, THAT DOESN’T WORK!  No matter how careful you are, the knife acts like a rudder and steers its own path.  You don’t know unless you try.  I can do much better free hand.  I also use the kolrosing technique to add my mark and the year to each piece.

So tomorrow evening two more coats of shellac and Saturday they will be buffed and waxed.

Greg Merritt

Posted in Finishing | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Boxing Up the Scrap Pile

The HB Tansu project that I just finished, made good use of the lumber that I purchased.  I designed it so that it would generate a minimum of scrap based on what is available at the Big Box stores.  Even so there is a certain amount of inevitable scrap.  Of course, in reality, I don’t consider any piece of wood as scrap.  Consequently my pile of pieces has grown to be far too large.  I decided that before I begin another tansu I would make as many things from the scrap pile that I possible could.

box-3I spent most of the week getting my tools in back in order.  Everything was sharpened and oiled.  All the planes were dismantled, cleaned and oiled.  The shop floor didn’t get swept but I’ll get to it….eventually.  I then turned my attention to the scrap pile taking stock of what I had available to work with.  I then spent a couple of evenings sketching out some ideas, but nothing was working for me.  Saturday morning I decided to just wing it.

box-2I started with a chisel box.  I recently bought a few new chisels and needed something to put them in.  I need to write a post about these chisels but I want to use them for at least another large project before I can really tell you anything definitive about them.  To arrive at the size for the storage box I laid the chisels on the bench and made a tick mark on my wood for the length and the width.  The joinery I used for this box was based on a photo that I had seen of an antique Japanese box.  The joints are just finger joints that change orientation at the each corner and are then pinned.  The joinery works but it’s a hassle to hold everything together during assembly.  I won’t be using this joinery again in the future.  The box is strong but way too much work to wrestle all the pieces together.  I added a groove to three sides to receive a sliding lid.  The lid will make use of some of the left over birch ply.  The interior was just a matter of accommodating the chisels.  I added a keeper over the blades so that I can stand or lean the box at the end of the bench while I’m working and the chisels won’t fall out.  To retrieve a chisel I just have to lift, tilt and slide the chisel from its slot.  I almost have this chisel box done.  There is some cleanup on the lid and I want to add some decoration to the lid as well.

box-1The rest of the stock that I had available was long, but fairly narrow in width.  Most of the pieces were around 2″ or less.  These pieces were just about right for making pencil boxes. So that is what I did.  The design is based on one presented by Paul Sellers in his Masterclasses series.  I modified it to suit my stock though.  These boxes are dovetailed together and have a sliding lid.  The lid is shaped as a raised panel and I added some hillbilly inlay (kolrosing) for decoration.  I managed to have enough stock for two pencil boxes.  One is slightly shorter than the other, but still plenty long enough to serve its purpose.  The decorated one is ready for shellac and the other still needs a bit of work.

The remaining pieces were too narrow for pencil boxes and I settled on a storage tray.  This one will live beside my chair in the living room and hold the odds and ends that I always seem to have piled up on the side table.  This tray is assembled with a single dovetail at each corner and will have a birch ply bottom.  The frame is in the clamps and I’ll get a bottom on it tomorrow evening.

I have no idea of any of the sizes for these boxes.  The chisel box is big enough to hold my chisels.  The pencil boxes are long enough to hold pencils and the tray is sized to my largest piece of remaining birch plywood.  There is something liberating about making something useful with no plan and no measurements.  I’ll complete these boxes this week and apply a finish to them.  That will put a couple of pencil boxes in the gift pile for Christmas and the scrap pile is a little smaller.

Greg Merritt

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Meat Powered Bamboo Peg Cutting Machine

The Hillbilly Daiku proudly presents:

The Meat Powered Bamboo Peg Cutting Machine 

peg-cutting-jig-6While researching tansu I noted that the drawers where typically pegged together.  I little further research turned up a couple of videos, here and here, that showed these pegs being installed.  After a good bit of poking around on the internet I managed to find a couple of suppliers.  One is in Germany and the other is in Australia.  I could order them but the cost of shipping is just too much to make it worth it.  I’m also trying to keep the materials list down to readily available materials.  So on to other options.

My first experiment was to make my own pegs from hardwood.  Whittle a long, thin piece down to 1/8″(3mm) cut it off and do it again and again and again…..  This worked but the results were inconsistent and it was a time consuming process.  Next!

I thought about making a dowel plate and drive pieces of wood thru graduated holes to produce the pegs.  Experience and common sense told me that, because of the peg’s small diameter, I would break as many pegs as I was likely to produce.  Moving on.

I went to the big box store and had a look at their hardwood dowel offerings.  In my area poplar is sold as a hardwood and that is what these 1/8″ dowels were made of.  They were ratty looking, weak and somewhat expensive.  Nope, not the answer either.

Back to searching on the internet for every wording that could pertain to a wooden peg.  That’s when I stumbled upon the idea of using bamboo skewers to manufacture my pegs.  I was able to find 1/8″ x 12″ bamboo skewers at Wal-Mart in the kitchen aisle.  A bag of 100 for $1.00.  Bamboo is a grass, but behaves like wood when its dry.  It has grain and, like wood, can be easily split along its grain.  Across the grain however, bamboo has tremendous shear strength.  Its actually stronger in shear than just about any wood I’m likely to be working with.  After a couple of experiments I decided that this was going to work for me.  I take advantage of the compression factor in the softwood that I’m working with.  The bamboo peg does not compress.  So a bamboo peg driven into softwood compresses the wood as its driven in.  Once in, the wood swells slightly and holds the peg firmly in place.

Cutting the bamboo skewers down to usable lengths was a bit of a PIA.  They were hard to hold and, when the last bit of fiber was severed, the now free peg would go skittering across the bench or worse to the floor and hide in the shavings.  The first pegs I sharpened with a utility knife.  A little slow, but got the job done.  All of this was time consuming, but not so much to discount the option.  What I needed was a more efficient way of rendering the skewers into usable pegs.

I’m not an engineer, I’m a mechanical designer in my day job.  The pertinent difference being that, while I have the skill to over complicate the problem, I still possess enough common sense to find a simple solution.  ;)  (Just a little joke.  Engineers please do not send me any nasty grams.)  After sketching several convoluted ways to cut a bamboo skewer into pegs I was able to distill the ideas down to a relatively simple solution.

The Meat Powered Bamboo Peg Cutting Machine

Its simply a box that serves as a length gauge, saw guide and catchment device.  The inside width is the desired length of peg.  The length of the box is long enough to accommodate my small pull saw.  I lowered the far end to make sure the saw clears it.  I added a groove at the other end that will accept the skewer.  I drilled a hole thru the side, in-line with the groove.  This allows me to insert the skewer thru the hole and into the groove.  The saw is kerfed into that corner allowing me to cut the skewer to length.  The hole and the groove provide support during the cut, remember I’m using a pull saw, and minimize any splintering.  I also sloped the bottom edge of the groove.  Once the peg is cut free it simply rolls into the box.  The only remaining issue that needed to be a addressed was how to taper the peg.  A very slight taper is all that is needed to allow easy starting of the peg into a drilled hole.  A $1.00 pencil sharpener was just right for the job.  So the procedure is thus.

Use the pencil sharpener to slightly taper the blunt end of the skewer.  Insert that end of the skewer into the hole in the side of the box until it contacts the opposite side of the box.  Insert the saw into the kerf and cut the peg to length.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Is it super quick?  No, but I can produce a good number of pegs in a short time with a minimum of fuss.  So the plan is to process a few skewers every time I’m in the shop. It shouldn’t take very long to fill the box and have pegs at the ready.

Instructional Drawing:

Bamboo Peg Cutting Jig

Greg Merritt


Posted in Design, Hillbilly Tansu | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Bench Upgrade and Maintenance

My shop time was limited this weekend.  There was grass to mow and several other household related things that needed doing.  Since I just completed a fairly large project, I’ve been making notes.  Some have to do with the construction of the HB Tansu and some are shop and tool notes.  What works, what doesn’t and what would make the process go a little smoother.

Two of these notes concerned my workbench.  I like my workbench.  It’s Paul Sellers’ design from his book, “Working Wood 1&2“.  It is my first “real” bench so I have nothing to compare it too, but I have not found it lacking, except.  From the outset, I’ve found that I wanted or needed a stop at the end of the bench.  Paul does almost everything in the vise and it obviously works for him.  I find that I don’t like working in the vise all the time.  Several operations I can complete quicker on the bench top with the workpiece butted up against a stop.  My solution, for well over a year now, was to simply screw a 1/4″ piece of scrap to the bench top.  This has worked well but gets in the way at times.  Then I have to unscrew and remove it.  Then reinstall again when I need it again.  Time for an upgrade.


Below the bench top and still clears the drawer.

I purchased a couple of 5/16″ lag studs plus washers and wing nuts.  I already had an off cut of 3/4″ birch ply set aside to use as a fence/stop.  The job was simple.  Cut two vertical slots in the plywood fence and install the lag studs in the end of the bench.  The slots were done by drilling two holes, saw out the waste between them and cleanup with a rasp. Now I have a stop that sits below the bench top when not needed and can be raised to any height, up to an inch, when required.  It’s very solid.  Done.


The other note concerned the chewed up edge of my bench top.  I do the vast majority of my sawing in the vise.  Cross cuts and rip cuts.  As a consequence the edge of my bench top gets a little ragged from the saw.  I didn’t worry about it too much, its ugly, but nothing else.  Lately though I’ve picked up a few splinters from this ragged area.  At first I thought that I would just smooth it up with a chisel and sandpaper, then Paul Sellers posted about how he had recently addressed the issue.  So I followed his example and inset a sacrificial piece.  Of course I already scarred it up, but it looks and feels much better.  Done.

This week I’ll be giving some TLC to all of my tools.  Planes will be dismantled, cleaned and oiled.  Blades, cutters, saws and chisels will be sharpened.  The shop will get a good cleaning up as well.  By next weekend I should be ready for the next project.

Greg Merritt

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Solutions Present when You Least Expect

I just completed the first Hillbilly Tansu and I’ve been evaluating all aspects of the project.  In truth I’m picking my work apart.  Those of us who create or build things tend to be most critical of our own work.  We see every flaw, no matter how minor.  We see these flaws because we know we made the error.  We have to be careful though.  This critical evaluation of our own work can drive some folks over the edge.  In some cases, stop them from creating anything else at all.  I’ve seen it happen.  This critical evaluation is most often a good thing though, it leads to continued improvement in design and skill.  Luckily, for now at least, I fall into the latter group.

Overall the HB Tansu came together the way I had hoped.  There are places that I need to improve my execution here and there.  Surface preparation on the birch ply panels is tops on my list.  The other two major areas that I want to address are the finishing process and the sliding door pulls.  The finish will be an ongoing saga for now but I think I have the solution for the sliding door pulls.

hbt-prog21I knew from the start that I wanted to make my own hardware for this project.  By employing my knot tying skills, I was confident that I could create the drawer pulls and the lifting handles.  The only real dilemma with those items was settling on a design that complimented the project.  I decided to use a (4) strand square knot which I knew would give me a square shape and that would compliment the exposed joinery on the front of the cabinet.  The real problem was the sliding door finger pulls.  These would need to be flush to the face of the door panel so that the doors can slide past each other.  This actually only applies to door at the rear, but the handles should match each other.  hbt-prog46The traditional Japanese method is to inset a purpose made piece, rectangular or round, into the panel itself.  I did find a few sources where I could purchase the necessary hardware.  Even the big box stores carry pressed metal cups for sliding cabinet doors.  But I wanted to do this project without purchasing any hardware.  What I settled on was a recess carved into the stile of the door frame.  Since the rest of the hardware is black, I knew I needed to add some way of darkening the carved recess.  There are several ways to accomplish this but I chose to incise a crosshatching pattern into the recess.  I knew the tinted wax would darken the hatched area but I could also have rubbed powdered coffee into the incisions.  This technique is called Kolrosing and is a post for another time.

My sliding door pulls turned out pretty well.  Their functional, easy to create and look fine.    My biggest gripe is that I wanted them to be in-line vertically with the drawer pulls.  I also wanted a solution that incorporated the twine that I used in the other hardware.  I was stymied for a solution.  Then a reader commented on my finished HB Tansu.

Ralph Boumenot, of “Accidental Woodworker” fame, made a comment on my sliding door pulls.

“I thought your drawer (door) pulls were knotted too until I read the write up. I initially thought you had drilled holes in the handles recess and wove your line through them.”

sliding_door_pull-00This immediately jogged the little grey cells, I’ve been watching too much Poirot, and reminded me of appliqué braids.  Since I do a lot of knot tying and reading on the subject, one of the natural offshoots is into leather braiding.  I dug out my copy of the “Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braiding” by Bruce Grant.  It lives up to its name.  In that book there is an appliqué called the “Circle of Hair Braid”.  Bingo, winner, winner, chicken dinner!  This will work perfectly.  So off to the shop I went.

The layout is pretty simple.  Draw a circle and step off the perimeter for evenly spaced holes.  I drilled the holes 9/64 diameter so that #32 twine would easily pass thru with just enough room for an additional pass of the twine.  I then cleaned up the holes on both sides with my smallest countersink.  All that was left was to install the appliqué per the instructions.  Then I locked it down with CA glue.  I like it, I like it a lot and this will be the option used on the next HB Tansu.

Thanks Ralph!  I owe you one.

Instructional Drawing:


Greg Merritt


Posted in Design, Hillbilly Tansu, Knot Tying | 3 Comments

HB Tansu Progress-12-Completed

Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.  On this, the 31st day in the year 2014, the first iteration of the Hillbilly Tansu has been completed.  :)

I started with an idea born from my admiration of the Japanese frame and panel tansu.  After hours of searching and coming up empty as to how these tansu are constructed, I elected to develop my own joinery for constructing a cabinet that mimicked the Japanese form.  From there the project became a quest for developing an entire system of construction.  This led me to developing joinery, framing elements and even jigs and tools to facilitate the construction of what I have dubbed the Hillbilly Tansu.  Overall I think my efforts have been fruitful.

The construction methods and joinery that I developed all worked out very well.  There were some silly mistakes on my part as to the execution, but the methodology is sound.  This system allowed for very quick build process.  The key to this, IMHO, is that the construction is modular.  Each module, front frame,  rear frame, drawers and doors, is a simple and easy to handle assembly.  With the exception of some dependent layout elements, each module can be fabricated independently of the other.  I found this much easier to manage in my small workspace.

Another item of consideration was material.  I wanted to be able to build this project from readily available material.  For me this means lumber from the big box stores.  I opted to purchase my birch ply from Woodcraft due to the poor quality of the plywood available at my local big box store however.  The difference in the plywood is not something that would have been critical though.  All the other lumber was purchased from the local Home Depot.  I actually designed the framing elements so that they could be constructed from 2x construction lumber.  As luck would have it, my local Home Depot carries 1.5in square x 8ft lengths of clear pine.  So that is what I used to build this first HB Tansu.  Another option for the framing lumber is to purchase turning squares.  These can be mail-ordered in 1.5in squares x 36in long and are available in several different species.  At a price of course.

I like to fabricate my own hardware when possible.  For this project I did just that.  I employed my knot tying skills and fabricated the drawer pulls and the lifting handles.  Both of these were tied using tarred nylon twine.  This type of twine is strong but also gives the impression of iron hardware.  The sliding door pulls were carved into the door frames themselves.  I added some incised crosshatching to provide an element of texture and to increase the color value to better blend with the other hardware.  I’m not totally sold on this method and will be trying to come up with something else in the future.

The finish was an experiment that I do not recommend.  Unless you want to develop a complex concerning your surface preparation abilities.  The idea was to use two tinted waxes and burnish them in with the polissoir.   Pine and birch are notoriously temperamental when it comes to dyes and stains and I should have known better.  My thinking was that the tinted wax would offer a bit of control in uptake of the color.  It didn’t!  In the end I was able to use a final application of clear wax, applied with steel wool, to blend the colors as best I could.  This lightened the color as well.  I’m not thrilled with it, but it’s not too bad.

This first HB Tansu was built as a proof-of-concept and overall I’m happy with the results. The design lends itself to being scaled and there are almost endless possibilities as to configuration.  I’ll be building one more of this configuration just to verify my initial findings and to try another finishing technique.  I’ll be sticking with clear shellac and wax on the next run.

Thanks for following along.

Greg Merritt

Posted in Hillbilly Tansu | Tagged | 10 Comments